Reflections on the Future of the Harvard Library
Dear Members of the Harvard Community:
Earlier this month, the Harvard Library Board recommended a strategic direction and set of overarching goals for the Harvard Library, including an outline for an organizational design to support a more unified University-wide library system. As we move to this new stage of the Library transition, about which you’ll hear more in the coming days, I want to take the opportunity to express my appreciation for the Board’s efforts, to reiterate our purposes, and to underscore why change is imperative.
Over more than three centuries, Harvard has developed the nation’s, and indeed the world’s, preeminent university library. It is a global treasure and one of Harvard’s greatest assets. But changing circumstances have exerted new pressures on the Library and have led us to ask whether we are optimally positioned to sustain its preeminence into the future. The digital revolution and the altered landscape of information have transformed patrons’ relationships to libraries; costs of acquisitions, especially serials, have been steadily rising, as has the cost of off-site storage for a growing fraction of our collection; intellectual horizons have expanded, requiring new materials and broader scope for collecting; access to online resources has not kept up with the Harvard community’s expectations. In face of these realities, Harvard began an examination of its library system, in 2009 establishing the Library Task Force, followed by the Library Implementation Working Group (LIWG) the following year.
The findings of the Library Task Force and the LIWG were sobering, compelling those of us who care deeply about the Library to recognize that its continued excellence required significant change. The policy of “coordinated decentralization” that governed our libraries until now has left us unable to make integrated strategic decisions about the digital future, so that we have not kept pace with essential new technologies; it has led to duplications in services and acquisitions; it has caused us to miss economies of scale; and has produced overhead costs that are significantly higher than those of our peers. Let me cite just one telling and disturbing finding from the analysis of the LIWG: only 29 percent of Harvard’s total library budget goes to materials, while for our peers, the average is 41 percent. We have not been using our resources to maximum advantage.
I think of the Harvard Library as a bit like the University’s circulatory system, providing the lifeblood of information to every part of the academic enterprise. For many of us, the Library served as a critical factor bringing us to the University, a distinctive excellence that made Harvard stand out from other institutions. When I arrived at Harvard as Radcliffe dean, I had the honor of assuming stewardship of one of the Library system’s jewels: the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, a unique and unparalleled collection. As a Civil War historian, I have roamed the stacks of Widener with wonder at the riches in my field—including materials brought back from the South by Harvard alumni at the end of the War nearly 150 years ago—seemingly awaiting me and my 21st century questions. In the Harvard Law School Library I found the very slip of paper with the scribbled name and address that Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes pinned to his uniform so that if he were killed his body would be identified and returned to his family. Harvard’s libraries represent for all of us a signal privilege—and a concomitant responsibility.
It is indeed because we love the libraries we cannot ignore the challenges they face. We must direct our resources more effectively to our academic priorities; we must acquire materials as a unified single university collection to reduce both duplication and omissions; we must reimagine the nature and scope of services we can provide digitally and embrace the possibilities inherent in new technologies; we must unite across the University to strengthen our negotiating position with publishers and vendors in order to sustain our extraordinary collections; we must collaborate more extensively with other institutions to allow broader access to needed books, journals, and databases.
All of this involves change, and change is never easy. Our destination is compelling: we intend to be the preeminent university library of the 21st century as we were for the 20th. But that does not mean the path to that goal will always be clear or easy or noncontroversial. We are moving into an exciting yet uncharted new world of digital information in which experiments and innovations are constant and necessary, yet their outcomes not always predictable. We seek to alter long-lived structures and arrangements, thus disturbing what may seem like short-term stability in service of much longer term purposes. We are making these decisions about the future based on the best available knowledge, careful consideration, and wide deliberation. Faculty and staff have offered hundreds of hours of consultation, committee work, ideas, and feedback over the past two years.
It is inevitable that we will need to make adjustments and revisions in initial goals and plans, that we will learn as we proceed. We will certainly encounter challenges—some that we foresee, others that we do not. But we must not be diverted from the goal before us: to make the change necessary to ensure that the treasure that is the Harvard Library, entrusted to us by the age that is past, is sustained in its excellence for the age that is waiting before us. I seek your engagement, your understanding, and your support as we build the new Harvard Library together.